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Lessons learned from a year of limitations

Looking back at the onslaught of challenges I’ve overcome, lead me to ask myself “how did I survive?”

Ezimma Chigbo | 24 Feb 2021

An image of a person holding a pink flower. You can see her hand and feet.

Image credit: Jazmin Antoinette.

Reflecting on the rollercoaster that this past year has highlighted for me a layer of resilience I didn’t know I had. Choosing to acknowledge and celebrate this feels important in these times. I recently read through the journal I started at the beginning of lockdown and was surprised by some insights I gained. Reading back over my own words, penned during one of the most challenging years of my life, took me on an uncomfortable and painful journey; however, moving through the discomfort, I gathered lessons on survival, vulnerability, bravery and joy.

For agents of social change, it can be easy to focus so heavily on the issues we’re trying to tackle that we overlook the personal growth we encounter along the way. Looking back at the onslaught of challenges I’ve overcome led me to ask myself, “How did I survive?” – reading through my journal, I was able to discern five main themes which I’d like to share with you:

1. Setting and maintaining boundaries

I have had to become a lot more rigid with my boundaries. On some days, this entailed writing detailed lists of what my day would look like hour by hour and making sure I stuck to my plan. On other days, this means leaving Zoom meetings before they’ve ended when overrunning. This has not always been easy, and I know I still have a long way to go regarding boundaries. Still, I am proud to say I’m improving at setting and maintaining boundaries.

I value flexibility, particularly in the context of work, which has made it difficult for me to maintain boundaries when they’ve been set. This past year has taught me that it is possible to be flexible within my boundaries, and actually, this is where I feel happiest and produce the best results. I’d like to acknowledge that setting boundaries will look different for each of us, and that’s okay, but for me, paying attention to boundaries has been imperative for maintaining my well-being. For anyone engaging in social justice work, boundaries ensure we work sustainably and help minimise burnout.

2. Learning to check in with myself and my needs

Before being able to communicate my needs to others, I first need to identify them for myself. One week, I wrote about feeling particularly disillusioned; to combat this feeling, there were days when I scribbled a line every hour describing how I was feeling and if I could identify anything I needed. Before living and working in lockdown conditions, I would have considered a task like this neurotic and unnecessary. Yet, these circumstances have emphasised the importance of knowing what is going on for me internally to access my needs.

Admittedly, I’m not the best regarding feelings, but engaging with my emotions throughout lockdown has helped me better measure my needs. Moreover, I also cultivated a habit of checking in with myself each morning and seeing whether I was in a high-functioning or lower-functioning mood. This helped me manage which tasks I engaged with; on days where I had less energy or felt lower functioning, I would ensure I was tackling tasks which felt achievable given the space I was in and on days where I had more power, I would engage with the more complex tasks. Many of us work in contexts where every job feels urgent, leaving little room for ‘lower functioning’ days. When this happens, I have learned the importance of breaking more significant tasks into sizeable chunks to centre my care and well-being. I’ve found this approach to working supports me to work more efficiently than attempting to run on empty.

Image credit: Ez Chigbo.

3. Creating space for joy

I need you to trust me when I say that in our current context, I know how difficult it can be engaging with the concept of ‘joy’. At the beginning of the first lockdown, my thoughts seemed so dark and morbid, aside from my personal struggles, knowing there was so much suffering around me accompanied by such limited structural support and guidance, there didn’t appear to be much room for joy. I soon learned that I had to create room for it. Since making the decision to be intentional about creating space for joy in my life, I’ve begun to find a lot of joy in the simple things. Going for walks with my mum, observing nature, listening to a good playlist or podcast, cooking a nice meal or ordering a McDonalds from UberEats! I realised that when I decided to look for joy, it was not so difficult to find.

There have been points where I have been overwhelmed with sadness or anxiety and although sitting with that can be tough, knowing and trusting that I could create moments of joy provided me with a sense of balance. Though exacerbated by the pandemic, feelings of overwhelm or anxiety are not new to me; I’m sure many of us working for social change can relate to this.

Learning to create space for joy in the face of some of the challenges we’re working to change feels both revolutionary and necessary. In an entry written on one of the difficult days I ask myself “what will you do this week that will bring you joy?”. I encourage you to ask this of yourself too.

4. Valuing community

One of my favourite entries to read over was written in May 2020 after the Erykah Badu and Jill Scott Versuz battle on Instagram. These formidable women are two of my favourite artists of all time. Yet, ironically, most of what I wrote about did not centre on their performances but on the sense of community on my Twitter timeline. I write about forgetting momentarily that the world was upside down and feeling deeply connected to people through a shared love of music. Something about knowing this was a shared experience only enhanced my joy.

One of my most significant challenges has been battling feelings of isolation whilst having minimal energy (and desire) to socialise through screens. Noticing pockets where I can connect with loved ones has nurtured some really beautiful moments for me.

Acknowledging that we are all experiencing difficulties has been humbling, but also highlighted the need to lean on each other through this.

I have had moments where social media has felt overbearing, causing me to plug out; during these times, I have appreciated friends reaching out to me. Learning people’s preferred methods of communication (text/WhatsApp/zoom/facetime/calls, etc.) has helped me develop a flow in maintaining effective communication with loved ones and staying plugged into the various communities which serve as a source of strength and hope.

5. Slowing down or even stopping when necessary

There have been many moments where I have simply had to stop and recoup. The reality is that living and working through a global pandemic is difficult, and being gentle with myself has been a necessity. I have had to become a lot better at slowing down, which has included saying ‘no’, taking regular breaks and accepting I have less capacity than I was previously used to; often, completing tasks can take longer than they used to pre-pandemic. Learning to embrace this new pace of life has helped me be more mindful about processes and not just outcomes. I’ve realised that things always get done, but embracing this new pace allows me to be kinder to myself while completing tasks.

Through reading over my lockdown journal, I realised that many of these lessons were learned in hindsight. Despite categorising this period of my life as one of the most difficult, there was something beautiful and freeing about looking back and developing a more balanced account of affairs. I don’t say this to minimise the difficulty or suffering we’ve collectively experienced during this pandemic; instead, to emphasise that through it all, I have found ways to keep going – we have found ways to keep going.

And while surviving, there have been moments of learning, joy and connection. This post highlights the five central practices which have supported me to show up for myself and my loved ones, practices I plan on maintaining as we transition into a new world, one which I am hopeful will adopt these lessons of self-awareness and compassion for ourselves and each other.